autonomy; independence; psychological well-being; well-being; learning environment; residency training; graduate medical education


Industrial and Organizational Psychology | Interpersonal and Small Group Communication | Medical Education | Medical Humanities | Theory and Philosophy


Research shows that when educational leaders support their learners’ autonomy, it positively impacts both parties. This is particularly important in graduate medical education (GME), given that there is a strong emphasis on resident performance, evaluation, and development. Unfortunately, GME faculty often misunderstand autonomy as the resident’s desire for independence or “freedom,” when in fact it refers to the core psychological need to feel volitional and agentic. The distinction is important because volition is not synonymous with independence, and providing freedom can be at odds with strategies that provide true autonomy support. This, in turn, can contribute to the stress, maladjustment, and resident burnout that are already prevalent in medicine. To help remedy this issue, this paper provides an evidence-based guide for medical educators to distinguish autonomy from independence, with specific examples to help translate theory into practice to better support the well-being of the medical community.